Erroll Morris Makes Rumsfeld Story Film Friendly

The latest documentary from filmmaker Errol Morris is called The Unknown Known. It is an interview with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Morris also directed Fog of War.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's compare two documentary films about two wartime Secretaries of Defense. Errol Morris directed "Fog of War," about a Pentagon leader in the Vietnam-era. And Morris's new film focuses on Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary during the war in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE UNKNOWN KNOWN")

DONALD RUMSFELD: There are no knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

INSKEEP: Donald Rumsfeld recounting one of his more famous lines, for the filmmaker, in a movie which is called "The Unknown Known." We do know that Kenneth Turan, of the Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION, has looked at both of these films.

Hi, Ken.

KENNETH TURAN: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, Rumsfeld was quite a character while Secretary of Defense. And he spends much of this film just looking right at the camera taking questions from the filmmaker. It's really something.

TURAN: He's mesmerizing. It's almost like we're the snake and he's a snake charmer. He is just using words, really, to hypnotize us.

INSKEEP: But this is a subject - and you could have said this about the last Errol Morris film that we mentioned, about Robert McNamara and the Vietnam-era - that is not automatically film friendly. How does Errol Morris take a subject like this, that's about inside meetings, about memos, about a wartime decisions made in private and make it live on the screen?

TURAN: Well, Errol Morris is really a spectacular filmmaker. When he's not making these documentaries he's making high-end commercials. He's really a great user of the language of film. He has these memos that Rumsfeld has dictated over the years - you see them. You see dictionaries definitions on screen. You see beautiful things that he has photographed, for instance, a huge close-up of a helicopter when Rumsfeld is talking about the exit from Vietnam, which he also was involved with.

So there's real filmmaking involved here, which is something unexpected and which makes all this kind of dense stuff really easy to go down.

INSKEEP: Also, if I might mention, he makes powerful use of pauses, silence. He draws out the quotes of his main subject, Rumsfeld, or other people who are talking.

TURAN: Yeah, he doesn't cut quickly. He understands that in these pauses, as you say, in these silences, you get to see these people reflecting. You get to really look a little bit deeper by respecting those silences.

INSKEEP: So does this movie work in the end?

TURAN: Oh, I think it does. Again, it's not like the McNamara film. It's not like the "Fog of War." Rumsfeld, who was in a different psychological place, he didn't feel confessional. He's completely sure of what he did. But you get a picture of the man. You come out of this film and you say: I think I know what Donald Rumsfeld is like. And I think you'd be right.

INSKEEP: To what extent is Errol Morris, the filmmaker himself, a character in this film?

TURAN: Oh, he's very much a character. I mean you hear him interviewing Rumsfeld, which in many classic documentaries you just hear the responses. You don't hear the director asking the questions. And there are moments when he really goes, kind of, head-to-head with Rumsfeld in very engaging ways.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to one of those moments where Errol Morris has heard - a little bit off-mic - asking a question to Rumsfeld. And Rumsfeld, as he classically does, takes issue with the question.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, THE UNKNOWN KNOWN)

ERROL MORRIS: Why the obsession with Iraq and Saddam?

RUMSFELD: Well, you love that word obsession. I can see the glow in your face when you say it.

MORRIS: Well, then, obsessive person.

RUMSFELD: Are you? I'm not. I'm cool and measured.

INSKEEP: You can hear there and you see even more on the screen, when you see the grin on Rumsfeld's face, why this guy was so compelling whether you loved him or hated him.

TURAN: Oh, yeah. I mean it's a wonderful interchange. You really - 'cause you get to see Rumsfeld's personality. Even though Errol Morris interjects himself, the purpose is for us to see what Rumsfeld is really like, and that challenge is just classic - just classic.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan, thanks very much.

TURAN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's film critic for the Los Angeles times and MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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